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'Zero Dark Thirty' Vs. 'Seal Team Six': How 2 Films Tackle Torture, 9/11 & The Hunt For Bin Laden

by Kevin Jagernauth
January 9, 2013 10:57 AM
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Believe it or not, you're actually going to have more than one option this week when it comes to movies taking on the hunt for and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Yes, there's Kathryn Bigelow's awards season favorite, "Zero Dark Thirty," going into wide release on Friday. But hitting DVD and Blu-ray yesterday was The Weinstein Company's much lower budget "Seal Team Six: The Raid On Osama Bin Laden."

The latter movie brings with it an unlikely group of players. Directed by John Stockwell ("Tursistas," "Into The Blue," "Crazy/Beautiful"), its biggest names are Cam Gigandet and Xzibit, and unlike Bigelow's two-and-a-half-hour epic, it runs a mere ninety minutes. The picture earned a tiny bit of press and controversy last fall when it was reported that the filmmakers were tweaking the movie to better position President Barack Obama, an argument not helped by the decision to air 'Team Six' on the National Geographic Channel on November 4th, two days before the election. And while it was cut for the TV broadcast, select clips of Mitt Romney and John McCain opposing the hunt for the terrorist leader remain in the home video version. It's a lone partisan moment in an otherwise straight-laced effort.

And while the budgets and scope between "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Seal Team Six" are wildly different, they also overlap in several key areas. Given that both movies will be widely available this week, we thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast the two. But screenwriter Kendall Lampkin, who penned Stockwell's flick, perhaps sums up the key difference best. "I tried to make a story that would hold up even if the headlines changed," he said in a "Seal Team Six" special feature. "It's not about details, it's about people. So that, no matter how much the details change on the news, we don't have to keep changing the script."

Below, we'll get into how both movies approach torture, 9/11 and the final raid on the compound in Abbotabad. And while spoilers for a recent historical event seem a bit silly, if you're concerned, yes there will be spoilers.

Maya & Vivian: Jessica Chastain Vs. Kathleen Robertson
One of the most important elements that both movies present as crucial to the operation to find Bin Laden is the tenacity of a determined CIA agent. Named Maya in Bigelow's movie, and Vivian in Stockwell's picture, whoever she is in real life, the agent must be flattered to have beautiful women Jessica Chastain and Kathleen Robertson ("Boss," "Beverly Hills 90210") portraying her. Moreover, she pretty much gets the same characterization in each film.

"We should bomb the fuck out of it," Vivian declares when options are discussed about how to approach the Bin Laden compound. "I'm gonna smoke everyone in this op," Maya says after losing a friend and colleague in a suicide bombing. "Then I'm going to kill Bin Laden." In short, both are as ruthless in their dedication to gathering evidence and making a case as they are passionate about seeing the Al Qaeda leader pay for his crimes. Vivian is friends with someone who had a family in one of the World Trade Center towers, while Maya's pursuit seems to be more obsessive, with a personal stake that only develops later on. ("I believe I was spared so I could finish the job," Maya declares). But either way, whoever this agent was, she gets represented as an unwavering fighter who battles the chain of command in order to see the final objective through.

The Hunt: 10 Years Vs. 18 Months
As we said in the opening, one movie sprawls over two and a half hours, while the other clocks in at just over half that time, so the scope of each, obviously, is different. In Bigelow's picture, at least one-third to half the film is spent detailing the search for Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, Bin Laden's trusted courier and right-hand man. He's the link to finding the feared leader, and "Zero Dark Thirty" shows the work that went into verifying his identity, chasing leads and eventually tracking him down. It's an opportunity for audiences to see just how complex and clinical that kind of work is, and it's riveting stuff.

However, Stockwell's film doesn't have that luxury of time or budget, and as the screenwriter revealed, they couldn't get too fixated on the nitty gritty details. So "Seal Team Six" opens with a pre-credit sequence in 2002, in which a detainee at Guantanamo Bay offers up some intel. We then fast forward to 18 months away from May 1, 2011, with operations in full swing in Pakistan, and Vivian making the case to her superiors that indeed, Osama Bin Laden is alive and in the compound in Abbatobad. Basically, "Zero Dark Thirty" fills in that huge gap of time, when many other worldwide terrorist incidents continued the intense pressure to bring down Bin Laden. Meanwhile, "Seal Team Six" most concerns itself with the SEAL team, and how they trained and bonded for the operation.

9/11: Subtle Or Showy
Even more than ten years after September 1, 2011, a day that forever changed the face of the country, portraying what happened on the big screen has been tricky. There is no doubt that the World Trade Center towers coming down, along with the downed plane smashing into the Pentagon, dramatically refocused military and intelligence efforts. But it was a day that also changed the lives of ordinary Americans, who suddenly realized that things that seemed to happen only in Other Places, could very well strike at home.

Bigelow gracefully opens "Zero Dark Thirty" on a black screen, with only various actual audio from the day playing, perhaps most notably, one panicked voice of a woman in one of the towers, who comes to the realization with a 911 operator listening on the line, that she's going to die. It's heartbreaking, raw-nerved stuff that immediately conveys how monumental historically, emotionally and personally 9/11 was for everyone. Stockwell isn't bothered by such nuance, and "Seal Team Six" is more than happy to haul out footage of the planes slamming into each tower, in a pretty big swipe at the heartstrings that mostly feels cheap, easy and exploitative.

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  • Tommy Jones | March 19, 2013 5:59 AMReply



  • Landon F | March 19, 2013 1:54 AMReply

    *Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden*
    Let me save you some time. This "movie" is terrible! It is downright offensive to the SEALs and CIA ops that it tries to depict. NOTHING is right in this movie. Total fiction. Almost None of the gear is right, none of the dialogue is right, and it seems to try and make President Obama out to be some sort of hero, which is laughable. Obama had nothing to do with the raid except for pissing some SEALs off by making them wait longer than they should have. Thank God they are awesome and performed near flawlessly.

    When it comes to units and missions like this, people expect it to be as realistic as possible. This wasn't even close. The actual SEALs that did the real mission condemned this film profusely.

    Dont waste your time. Go watch Zero Dark Thirty instead. Or better yet, read the book No Easy Day for a first hand account.

    *Zero Dark Thirty*

    AWESOME. Go see it asap

  • van013 | March 23, 2013 5:12 PM

    In support of Landon F opinion:

    It is hard to compare these two movies objectively and fair, primarily due to unequal budget.

    Zero Dark Thirty is better in:

    · Overall cinematography
    · scenery and equipment are very authentic
    · likelihood of events is quite convincible
    · It goes much deeper in details
    · Dialogs sound closer to reality
    · Cast - perfect selection
    · Seal team characters look very authentic. Probably many of us already have seen pictures of real special forces soldiers from multiple sources available from Internet.
    · Maya is awesome - Jessica Chastain did excellent job
    · As we already know - SEAL's combat chatting and assault longevity were ridiculous - unnecessary failure.

    Seal Team Six is inferior in almost every segment:

    · The worst - SEAL's appearance, they look like boy scouts
    · Rest of cast is third-rate
    · Impression - pretty much as propaganda for Obama
    · Some facts around assault that are missing from Zero Dark Thirty, are here mentioned, particularly wider air support concept, contact with Pakistani jets and preparedness for clash with Pakistani military. Very interesting was agent's activity on site, around compound, which was not shown in Zero Dark Thirty.

    Zero Dark Thirty is highly watchable; due to visual luxury and story comprehensiveness, it is multiple times better than Seal Team Six. In spite of missing critical facts shown in Seal Team Six and misrepresented SEAL's combat behavior it is absolute winner.

  • Sir Rodeheaver | March 14, 2013 5:15 AMReply

    You said Zero Dark Thirty had a more accurate account of the Compound scene at the end in which they breach the compound and shoot Bin Laden, but the actual shooter, in his interview with Esquire, said that there were 7 things wrong with the scene. One being all the noise made and talking. He commented specifically on the scene when someone yelled, "Breacher!", stating that they are trained not to do so. Silence is practiced. I appreciate your effort in attempting to address the two movies because that's what I was searching the net for, but it looks like you just winged it and didn't research. Just my thoughts.

  • Adam | February 18, 2013 3:08 PMReply

    LOL. Neither is realistic. But at least Seal Team 6 is interesting.

    Way to be a stereotypical critic, espousing a false reality that doesn't exist. Bigelow's movie was boring with a bad story and poorly acted. Chastain's portrayal was worse than a 90210 actors portrayal merely because she was emotionless and pointless to the plot.

    Zero Dark Thirty sucked as it failed as both a documentary and a fictionary war story.

  • Sir Rodeheaver | March 14, 2013 5:17 AM

    I agree Adam. Waisted a total of 4 hours on those two movies.

  • Jerry | January 23, 2013 3:23 AMReply

    Seal Team Six was absolutely the better of the two.

    Zero Dark Thirty was a discombobulated film which left me wondering why it is getting so many glowing reviews. It wasn't a bad film, but it certainly wasn't great and deserving of all the praise heaped upon it. There were certainly interesting aspects of intelligence gathering efforts but it still it seemed more like watching a documentary than a movie. It was just plain bland. The torture scenes were benign in my opinion, but were just plain too long.

    Seal Team Six is a better film on a much smaller budget. Better acting, tighter story and full of actual characters. It felt more compelling and emotional. The tie-ins with the actual government/POTUS footage worked quite well. I have no idea why showing the towers coming down is referred to as being "exploitative" in this review here. It happened and we've all seen the images of it happening countless times so why is a few seconds of seeing it in a movie about getting the mastermind behind it considered bad taste? "They came out guns blazing like a video game" says this review? I found both raids at the end to be fairly similar so that comment seemed more of an extra knock at ST6 to pump up the contrived ZDT gushing.

  • John | January 13, 2013 12:04 PMReply

    Seal Team Six is the better movie. The writing is much crisper and the story flows better

  • william joe fergusom EMT/P/P.A. | January 11, 2013 11:11 AMReply

    After seeing SEALteam 6 I do want to see stockwells movie and then I will make my comment, after all ive seen over 20 movies with very high budgets never tell the CORRECT story cant wait to see the HOLLWOOD VERISION being released TODAY. later medic joe

  • Bob Bear | January 10, 2013 12:39 PMReply

    That was your opinion, here's mine!
    I saw both movies, and I liked Seal Team 6 better,!
    I disagree with you on how torture was played out in Zero Dark 30, the guy says how am I supposed to get the answer now(after torture was stopped), ask him? This film was pro torture, and they made a concerted effort to get you to almost cheer it on, to get even! The torture scenes were far too long also, enough already, we got the idea!
    And lastly, the bigger name actors didn't do a better job on this comparison, sorry to disagree with you!
    See both, and decide for yourself!

  • polfilmblog | January 9, 2013 11:26 PMReply

    Spielberg is set to do an Osama bin Laden bio-pic, showing the CIA support for him and his network since the 1980s and Pakistani intelligence protection of bin Laden after 9/11. The decisions to allow Osama to get away repeatedly and escape to Pakistan should be included. Other US support of radical terrorist outfits like MEK, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the "Free Syrian Army" may get a mention ...

  • Ben | January 9, 2013 10:26 PMReply

    Can't believe I'm saying this but "Seal Team Six" had Eddie Kaye Thomas from "American Pie" not Thomas Ian Nichols.

  • Dani | January 9, 2013 6:38 PMReply


    I think Zero Dark Thirty has gotten a bad rap for being 'pro-torture'. Part of what makes the movie so brilliant is it's ambiguity and neutral morality. Bigelow assumes a mature audience that is willingy to come to it's own conclusions in regards to historical War on Terror practices, without the need for heavy-handed editorializing like an Oliver Stone flick. That being said, you and many other critics and commentators are inaccurately describing the opening interrogation scene. You wrote:

    "Ammar, the source who endures the most punishment we see, gives up al-Kuwaiti not when he's in shackles, but after, when he's plyed with food, fresh air and cigarettes."


    Dan and Maya are interrogating Ammar, an Al Qaeda money man, at a CIA black site. Despite attempts at coercion, Dan fails to elicit information regarding the Saudi Group that could have possibly prevented the Khobar attack in 2004. So in this respect, the interrogators fail. However, soon thereafter, Maya devises a ruse: because Ammar had been brutalized by prolonged sleep deprivation, she believes Ammar can be bluffed and manipulated. Memory loss, Dan later tells us, is a consequence of sleep deprivation. So Maya and Dan inform Ammar that he had coughed up information after he was kept awake for 96 hours, helping to prevent the Khobar attack. As a result, Ammar feels comfortable talking over a meal because he is under the false impression that he has already spilled operational secrets to his interrogators and that his interrogators are happy with him. During this lunch, when Ammar hesitates naming Al Qaeda colleagues who were with him in Afghanistan, Dan reminds Ammar that he could always go eat with someone else and "hang [Ammar] back up to the ceiling." Right after Dan says this, Ammar gives up some war names, including that of Abu Ahmed al Kuwaiti, the Bin Laden courier who would eventually lead the CIA to the now-famous compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

    I wouldn't say that this opening scene is positively an argument for the efficacy of torture, but you didn't accurately complete the narrative in your comments.

  • Sir | March 14, 2013 5:25 AM

    You are not as accurate as well my friend. The whole scene with the food, cigarettes and fresh air followed an epiphany by Maya to bluff him. It was a desperate act, almost.

  • Brandt Hardin | January 9, 2013 5:39 PMReply

    This movie is trash and glamorizes the American atrocity which is the “War on Terror.” Well over a year after Bin Laden’s death and over 10 years since 9/11, American citizens are still blindly allowing their civil liberties to be taken away one piece of legislation at a time in the naming of fighting terrorism. Even our own citizens can be detained and tortured without trial. What difference did it make killing Bin Laden and Hussein if nothing has changed? You can read much more about living in this Orwellian society of fear and see my visual response to these measures on my artist’s blog at

  • Tom | January 9, 2013 3:33 PMReply

    Interesting article. Thanks. I might have to check out Seal Team Six and compare it with Zero Dark Thirty this weekend.

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